Gully Boy: Genius storytelling, stupendous performances

In a scene with Ranveer Singh and Kalki Koechlin, Singh’s Murad asks Koechlin’s Sky why he likes her. For a moment, there is a quiet, it’s brief, but deepening. And then she says, “You’re an artist, of course I find you fascinating.” That is the thought you leave Gully Boy with, where your fascination is not just Murad, but Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin, Siddhant Chaturvedi, Vijay Varma, Vijay Raaz, Sheeba Chaddha and all the other actors, even those, like Srishti Shrivastava and Prateek Kumar who have the smallest roles. But most importantly, you’re fascinated by Zoya Akhtar and her storytelling.

Gully Boy is based on the lives of real life rappers Naezy and Divine and rests on the shoulders of Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt and Siddhant Chaturvedi. This is story of Murad, of Safeena, of MC Sher and more. Akhtar and co-writer Reema Kagti take us into Mumbai. There is no aerial shot of Marine Drive, or a shot of the Gateway of India from the balconies of Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is the Mumbai, Bombay rather, that dwells in slums, travels in local trains, struggles to even get (im)proper drinking water. From the very first shot, Akhtar tells us that this film will not be about people from the privileged side of life. It would rather be very contrary to the same. And honestly, this is her best work. Akhtar goes out of her comfort zone, where she would write about people from rich, affluent families, people who had different problems because they were from a different world. Here, she gets into a full journalist mode and it looks like she’s properly done years and years of research, on the tiniest detail before finally deciding to make this film.

But what Akhtar keeps intact from her previous films is the theme of dysfunctionality. And this is not the only theme that the film entails. In fact, there is such an outburst of themes and motifs that at the hands of a less skilful director and writer, the film would’ve fallen apart, into pieces. There’s love, friendship, competition, drama, patriarchy, feminism and more. There’s basically everything and nothing is even a tad bit out of place. This is an entirely perfect film and genius filmmaking.

Murad is young, he’s still in college, but his circumstances – born into poverty, son of a driver, father (Vijay Raaz) brings home another wife, he beats Murad’s mother (Amruta Subhash), has an accident and throws his own job, that of a driver, on Murad – force him to live a life full of lies. He knows he has the talent in him, the talent to grow, outgrow even, but not the resources, not the opportunities and so he gives in. He gives in for the love he has for his mother, the respect he has for his abusive father and for the pity he has for his reality. He learns this, early on, that this is life, when in a striking scene he is standing outside his home, the noises of the gully blaring in the background and he puts on an English rap on his phone, blurring the boundaries between the two worlds – one in the gully and one inside his earphones, realising that chaos is universal. And, in a completely opposite scene, when Murad is in Sky’s bathroom, he keeps the hand towel back in place and measures how many ‘foots’ is the bathroom, probably knowing that it is as big as his entire house, realising the sense of privilege and its universal nature too.

Cinematographer Jay Oza captures the true essence of all these scenes. From the start, he takes you through the gullies, where little boys are engaged in drug dealing, teenagers play cricket wherever they can, and men and women talk about lives of the people in the small homes adjoining theirs. But my absolute favourite part about his craft has to be the song Doori. That is one hard song

And what makes this perfect film even more perfect are the performances, not just by Singh and Bhatt, but by every other actor as well. Vijay Raaz as the perennially angry and exhausted father, Vijay Varma as the morally corrupt friend, Amruta Subhash as the tolerant mother – they’re all fantastic. Siddhant Chaturvedi, who plays Sher, make a terrific debut, one of the best I’ve seen in a while. He compliments Singh on each step, performing as if he weren’t just any new actor.

As Sky, Kalki Koechlin is living proof of overflowing talent. Sky is a rich music producer, who belongs to the same world to which her Natasha Arora (ZNMD) belonged. But Sky is an artist, a morally rounded, rebellious artist. She knows that there is wrong in the world and art is the only medium to peace it all out. In one of her scenes Koechlin’s Sky goes about town with a few of her friends, making graffiti on walls. She and her friends write Brown and Beautiful on a hoarding of a fairness cream.

Alia Bhatt as Safeena gives her career best performance. Bhatt is known to pull off a crying scene in most of her films with such ease. But here, she’s not crying, and when she is, she is faking it and she tells us that she, indeed, faking it. Safeena is frivolous, not because she is a cuckoo at times but because she has been a part of the repression for longer than she could hold her angst inside her. So she sprouts wherever and whenever she can. Alia abandons all she has – her glamorous image, her sense of individuality, of freedom – and dives into the nerves of Safeena to play her.

But the winner of Gully Boy is Ranveer Singh. Murad is confused. He doesn’t know where to go, or even what options are available to him. He doesn’t even know what an opportunity means. So later, when he gets them, he holds hard to them, crosses his heart and hopes to die and gives everything his best shot. Like Safeena, he too, is subjected to believe in a certain kind of reality. He is subjected to accept his fate, whatever it is. He is born in the slums and shall die there. He needs to get a real job, he needs to get his mother out of the miserable life she leads, he needs to educate himself, he needs to pay attention to his girlfriend of nine years, he needs to morally police his friends against a drug business and support them when they fall to the ground, and most importantly, he needs to give meaning to his life. And not for a single second did I not see Murad. Singh accepts he skin of Murad, like he perhaps embraces his clothes, his sense of fashion – with a certain confidence and naturalness unknown to humankind. Singh is Murad. He is the Gully Boy roaming in the streets of Dharavi, dreaming that one day a star will fall on the earth and that will be his. And as Murad, Singh delivers what no one could possibly have, even in a different role. This is his career best performance too, and my favourite in a long, long time.

A film about music – under Ankur Tiwari’s mentorship, it never goes wrong. We have a myriad of Indian musicians, MCs, and producers, such as Divine, Naezy, Sez on the beat, Rishi Rich, Dub Sharma, Jasleen Royal, Ace, Ishq Bector, MC Altaf, MC TodFod, 100 RBH, Maharya, Noxious D, Viveick Rajagopalan, and others and it is terrific to say the least. I am not a rap person, but I am sure I will be jamming to Doori, Azaadi, Apna Time Aaeyega and Kab Se Kab Tak for a while now. And complimenting the music are the dialogues by Vijay Maurya. Such talent!

Through Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti throw light upon the importance of dreams in our eyes. What is a man without his dreams, without his passion? In a particular scene, Murad explains to Sky that he cannot follow his passion because he needs to earn money to run his house. She takes a drag of whatever they’re smoking and says “Follow your passion, paisa khud aa jaega.” And indeed! Akhtar and Kagti urge us to challenge the norms, to challenge ourselves and discover what’s hidden deep within.

All in all, Gully Boy is a film that brings together the masterful forces of extremely talented storytelling and brilliant, ceiling shattering performances and the purest hearts of all the artists involved. This is a story that needed to be told, that needs to be heard.

If I had to rate the film, Gully Boy has a run time of 2 hours 36 minutes but not one single second feels extra. It’s genius, extraordinary filmmaking.

5 stars

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